The Maya are one of the three major indigenous ethno-linguistic groups of Mesoamerica. Their ancestral lands are located today in five modern nation-states: Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, Honduras, and El Salvador. The Maya encountered Spanish explorers on the coast of the Yucatán Peninsula in 1517. They fiercely resisted the Spanish invasion, and although Spaniards had subjugated most of the population by the mid-sixteenth century, only in 1697 did the last Maya kingdom of Tayasal fall.
Mexico achieved its independence from Spain in 1821, as did the nations of Central America, which operated as a political federation until 1838. Actions for Yucatán independence began that same year and continued through the 1840s. The British settlement of Belize, located between Mexico and Guatemala, formally became the colony of British Honduras in 1854.
In the nineteenth century, military conflicts and treaties resulted in an enlarged United States of America that was geographically closer to the Maya world. The Louisiana Purchase of 1803, the Onis-Adams Treaty of 1819 (ratified in 1820), and the Mexican-American War of 1846–1848, extended the U.S.A. to include French and Spanish territories north and east of the Gulf of Mexico and north of the Rio Grande.
The California Gold Rush, which began in 1848, generated enormous outside interest in areas of Central America in the quest for a shorter route between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. During the U.S. Civil War, Mexico fell again briefly into foreign hands. With the support of France, the Austrian archduke Maximilian became the emperor of Mexico in 1864. He was executed in 1867, and the Mexican government of Benito Juárez was re-established.